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Improving food, and food systems, is the key to feeding the world’s rapidly growing population well into the future.

Whether through genetically modified (GM) foods — in which the food’s genetic material has been altered by man to improve crop protection — or through biofortification — whereby the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology — the aim of scientists and nonprofits is to improve and deliver more nutritious, safe and sustainable food to communities in the global food system that are underserved.

The latter is the preserve of Cayuga Genetics, a pioneering offshoot of Cornell University’s famed agriculture program founded by Ph.D. Owen Hoekenga. The plant molecular biologist founded the Ithaca NY-based startup in 2016 not only to improve the vegetables and other foods humans consume, but also animal feed.

It’s an area of innovation that is garnering interest from nonprofits as well as the general startup community. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for one, has awarded a $10.3 million grant to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to fund the development of Golden Rice (a type of rice containing beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A), as well as given $8.3 million to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to support the second phase of its BioCassava Plus project, which aims to increase the nutritional value of cassava for Kenya and Nigeria. And in May 2018, Cayuga joined Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, a business incubator and workspace, to accelerate its mission of developing plants that are naturally healthier by increasing nutrients and essential vitamins to support both organic and conventional farmers and food manufacturers.

Hoekenga, who started his career at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Robert Holley Center for Agriculture and Health at Cornell University, spoke to Karma Network Contributing Editor Michael Moran about creating enough economic value to gain a foothold in the food science space.

Michael Moran: Can you describe what Cayuga Genetics does, and how this is different from others in the food science space?

Owen Hoekenga: We are trying to build a brighter future by making better plants, so that you get more bang for your buck from a plant-based diet. We use a process called biofortification, which aims to make plants intrinsically more nutritious. There are people who’ve been talking about this space for quite a while, and from the NGO perspective, it’s an area that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested quite a lot in.

It’s also starting to receive some attention from the startup community. A lot of people are talking about improving nutrition, but if you actually start to ask questions, it’s hard sometimes to tell what that means. Where we’re different is that we that we can do it — at least in part — without genetically modified organisms (GMOs). So we can do this in a way that is acceptable now and it shouldn’t fall afoul of any certification, whether it’s conventional, or organic, agriculture.

Michael Moran: Given the long-running controversies over genetic modification – many of the EU countries ban cultivation or sale of GM foods , and the Monsanto Company has faced international protests about its GM corn – how do you handle questions about GMO?

Hoekenga: I sidestep it. I know that it’s possible because we’re building on a proof of concept where we start to breed more nutritious crops, and found that it was actually achievable. You just need to ask the right question and test the validity of the method using animal feed studies. So for the question is whether it’s possible to do without a GMO? I would say the answer is yes. If we can do it that way then we can produce a product that should be acceptable to anyone.

We’re trying to act as a business-to-business company or an ingredient manufacturer. This is where we sit in the food industry ecosystem. Our ultimate consumer could be anywhere. It could be in North America, Europe, Asia, or Africa. That’s because we’re not squeezing ourselves out of the marketplace by being married to a particular technology.

Michael Moran: In the current space, you’re up against other startups as well as giants like Archer Daniels Midland or Monsanto. What’s your business strategy?

Hoekenga: It’s going to be partnership, because we’re a startup and that’s how it works. We’re agnostic in terms of where we partner, so I’m approaching this as a technical founder who wants to create enough economic value to get a foothold. If that means I am having a conversation with ADM or Bunge or Monsanto or whomever, then so be it.

At the end of the day, fortifying food is the point of it all.

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